Fact or Fiction: The Debate and Reproductive Health

Emily Douglas

Those of us waiting to hear the presidential candidates clarify their stances on abortion, women's health, equal pay and Supreme Court nominees had a lot to pay attention to tonight.

After two debates in which reproductive and sexual health issues
barely merited a mention, those of us waiting to hear the
presidential candidates clarify their stances on abortion, women’s
health, medical decision-making, equal pay and Supreme Court nominees
had a lot to pay attention to tonight. But the conversation wasn’t spin-free. Below,
we take the reproductive health and women’s rights portion of the
debate line by line, debunk the distortion and applaud the straight

On Judicial Nominees

Bob Schieffer began:

McCain, you believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Senator Obama,
you believe it shouldn’t.
Could either of you ever nominate someone to the Supreme Court who disagrees with you on this issue? Senator McCain?

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McCain responded first.

MCCAIN: I would never and
have never in all the years I’ve been there imposed a litmus test on
any nominee to the court. That’s not appropriate to do.

In fact, at a major speech on his judicial philosophy, McCain
promised to nominate strict constructionists "in the mold of Roberts
and Alito" to the Supreme Court. Strict constructionists are known to
reject the right to privacy, the foundation for Roe, on the grounds
that it is not enumerated in the Constitution.  Requiring this kind of
ideological purity is not a litmus test?

Obama’s response was slightly evasive — saying that Roe hangs in the balance, that he thinks Roe was "rightly decided," but claiming he would not support a "litmus test."

On Infant Protections

MCCAIN: Senator Obama,
as a member of the Illinois State Senate, voted in the Judiciary
Committee against a law that would provide immediate medical attention
to a child born of a failed abortion. He voted against that. And then,
on the floor of the State Senate, as he did 130 times as a state
senator, he voted present. 


We’ve debunked this accusation so many times it’s not funny.
The Illinois Born Alive Infant Protection Act was aimed at Roe, would
have interfered with state abortion law, and was bundled with other law
that would have increased physician liability — but, most importantly,
the infant protections that McCain claims Obama opposed were already
provided for in state law. In response, Obama hit many of the same

"There was a bill that was put forward
before the Illinois Senate that said you have to provide lifesaving
treatment and that would have helped to undermine Roe v. Wade. The fact
is that there was already a law on the books in Illinois that required
providing lifesaving treatment, which is why not only myself but
pro-choice Republicans and Democrats voted against it. And
the Illinois Medical Society, the organization of doctors in Illinois,
voted against it."

On Abortion Bans Without Health Exceptions

But McCain wasn’t finished:

there was another bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the
state of Illinois not that long ago, where he voted against a ban on
partial-birth abortion, one of the late-term abortion, a really — one
of the bad procedures, a terrible. And then, on the floor of the
Illinois State Senate, he voted present.

I don’t know
how you vote “present” on some of that. I don’t know how you align
yourself with the extreme aspect of the pro- abortion movement in
America. And that’s his record, and that’s a matter of his record.

he’ll say it has something to do with Roe v. Wade, about the Illinois
State Senate. It was clear-cut votes that Senator Obama voted, I think,
in direct contradiction to the feelings and views of mainstream

The Partial Birth Abortion Ban outlawed a form of safe abortion
without providing a health exception for instances in which that
procedure would in fact be safest for women seeking abortion care.  It
upset Roe’s careful balancing of a woman’s right to life and health
with the state’s interest in protecting fetal life. In his response,
Obama said he was "completely supportive" of a ban on partial birth
abortion, as long as the health of the woman was protected: "With
respect to
partial-birth abortion, I am completely supportive of a ban on
late-term abortions, partial-birth or otherwise, as long as there’s an
exception for the mother’s health and life, and this did not contain
that exception."

And what about McCain’s allegation that in opposing a federal
abortion ban without a health exception, Obama is aligning himself with
the "extreme aspect of the pro-abortion movement in America?" While
Congress was considering a federal version of the ban, ABC News polling found that 60% of Americans supported a health exception to the partial-birth abortion ban.

On Protecting the Health of Pregnant Women

MCCAIN: Just again, the
example of the eloquence of Senator Obama. He’s health for the mother.
You know, that’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America
to mean almost anything.

The health exception allows women who are physically or mentally compromised by pregnancy to protect themselves by terminating. This means "almost anything?" This is "extreme?" Since when does ensuring protection of the health of women –  many of them mothers – when discussing abortion access become something to challenge or argue against? It’s a testament to the anti-choice movement that their positions are so extreme and punitive that they need to resort to attacking women.  

On the Role of Adoption in Reducing the Abortion Rate

MCCAIN: But, look, Cindy and I are adoptive
parents. We know what a treasure and joy it is to have an adopted child
in our lives. We’ll do everything we can to improve adoption in this

But that does not mean that we will cease to
protect the rights of the unborn. Of course, we have to come together.
Of course, we have to work together, and, of course, it’s vital that we
do so and help these young women who are facing such a difficult
decision, with a compassion, that we’ll help them with the adoptive
services, with the courage to bring that child into this world and
we’ll help take care of it.


McCain repeatedly implied that supporting adoption services would lower the abortion rate. Tempting rhetoric, but not true, Guttmacher studies have shown. Increases in the relinquishment rate of newborns cannot be correlated with decreases in abortion rates. More than that, it is clear that when women have options during pregnancy – a full range of options – they are able to make the best decisions for their lives and the lives of their families. It is unclear whether McCain thinks that increasing access to adoption services for pregnant women will reduce the abortion rate. What is clear is that there are currently 150 million orphans in the United States alone – if McCain wants to institute policies to increase access to adoption services, it would be most beneficial to start with the 150 million orphans currently in need of loving families. 

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